Sunday, August 21, 2011

Despite The Preview Trailers, Love Happens Is Surprisingly Good!

The Good: Excellent casting/acting, Decent pace, Good story
The Bad: A bit predictable
The Basics: Charming, if occasionally predictable, Love Happens brings the year to substantial films with great dramatic performances by Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston.

As students go back to school and films gear up to Oscar Pandering Season (wherein all of the major studios release the less-mainstream films that they hope will garner them attention for awards) there is a brief period wherein there are substantial films released that often get overlooked for Oscar season. To be sure, there are occasionally performances that deserve attention during this season, but more often than not, early September is back-to-school dating fare and a few years ago the most promising entry into the milieu is Love Happens.

When Love Happens was released, I was still smarting from the prior year's neglect of Aaron Eckhart around award season for his performance of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (reviewed here!) and Love Happens represented the best chance Eckhart had in 2009 to get heaped with the praise he so justly deserves. Paired with Jennifer Aniston, Eckhart once again makes a bold cinematic performance as Burke Ryan in Love Happens, portraying a character who is moody, has a real conflict and undergoes a profound transformation in the course of the film.

And had it not been for the annoyingly explicit preview trailer, all of this might have been a surprise. As it is, as I came out of the screening of Love Happens my only regret was knowing so much of the film from the trailer. That said, this is a solid romantic drama and it is truly only marred by predictability.

Burke Ryan is in Seattle as part of his book tour for his bestseller on getting through loss when Eloise stumbles in. Distraught and lost from her last relationship and her unfulfilling life, she and Burke sit down, talk and bond. While Eloise is hesitant to get into a new relationship, she finds herself drawn to Burke, who is a widower and whose book was based upon his healing process after the loss of his wife. Encouraged by her best friend, Eloise continues to see Burke and when the going between them gets tough, Burke confesses to her.

Burke's book, it turns out, is based on his wishful thinking, the ideal he had when he lost his wife. With that confession comes a renewed bond between Eloise and Burke and the pair sets out to follow Burke's advice in his book. This leads the two to grow closer, heal, reconcile with estranged family and fall in love.

Writers Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson (Camp also directed the film) have a good eye for a fairly original story and the film deals much more with healing and reconciling the past than the love story between Eloise and Burke. Instead of belaboring all of the cliches of two people falling in love, Love Happens focuses more on putting the old love to rest when the new love begins, making it ideal for those who have lost love in the past or who are suffering "second wife syndrome." Eloise is certainly empathetic to those who are going through the latter as she lives in the specter of Burke's dead wife until the two of them actually begin dealing with his lack of closure.

This is not to say that the film is without cliches. The estranged parent introduced early on and the gossipy best friend both raised my eyebrow when they first appeared. Still, Love Happens is surprisingly strong because it maturely explores an adult relationship and the idea that Burke has managed to become a success based on how he wishes he could have reacted to his wife's death is quite original.

As well, the film is remarkably well-cast for the roles. Jennifer Aniston has proven she can play miserable - Friends With Money aptly illustrated that - but Love Happens puts her playing a character in a dark emotional place that the viewer actually cares about. Eager to get the most out of life and to recover from her own losses, Eloise arrives at Burke's seminar with a load of potential and an instantly likable cast to her. She is exactly what most of us are or want to see; a person who is struggling to get by and who wants the tools to live a better life. Aniston convincingly portrays this with a body language that has sagging shoulders through the beginning of the film and she actually makes her usually expressive eyes more dead.

This, then, becomes a wonderful character performance for Aniston as she slowly reverts to a more confident persona with a straightened spine and eyes that scream adoration and joy. That Aniston takes the transformation slowly makes the role work and Eloise is bound to be considered one of her best as time goes by. Similarly, Martin Sheen's role in Love Happens is arguably the most memorable one he has had outside The West Wing in years. He and Eckhart play off one another masterfully as their characters move toward an emotional understanding.

But it is Aaron Eckhart who masterfully carries most of Love Happens. As Burke, the focus is frequently on him, especially after his confession to Eloise. First, Eckhart is quite able to do the sympathetic damaged man role without it ever seeming over-the-top or melodramatic. In Love Happens, he plays the emotional chords perfectly and the contrast between Eckhart's portrayal of Burke on stage and off is striking and well-directed. Second, like Aniston, Eckhart draws out the emotional realizations, so even as his character begins to get closure, Eckhart does not take Burke into "everything's fine" territory. And when the film calls for it, Eckhart is appropriately charming with great on-screen chemistry between him and Aniston.

Director Brandon Camp makes Love Happens look good as well, keeping his protagonists well-lit. There are scenes in the film that look different from most dramas - the first meal that Eloise and Burke share seems especially charming and well-presented - and for that Camp deserves some credit. He and his writing partner might not have written the most original film of all time, but he does what he can to make it seem new and the effort works well. This is autumn's first must-see movie and it has been a while since I have wanted to see a film a second time the way I want to see Love Happens again.

For other works featuring Jennifer Aniston, please visit my reviews of:
Horrible Bosses
The Bounty Hunter
30 Rock - Season 3


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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